Local Debates not Leaders' Debates

Loz Kaye's picture

Anyone would think we are going to elect a president next year. Politicos, the media and the Twittersphere have been obsessing about the format of the Leaders' debates in the run up to the General Election.

What this has really been about is the largest forces in UK politics, from the Tories to the Greens promoting their own self interest rather than really doing what would reinvigorate creaking British democracy.

There has been much huffing about who should take part and who shouldn't. What's certainly true is that it's ridiculous to suggest that a Leaders' round with more than 3 participants is necessarily impossible to run. For instance, Sweden manages fine with a Leaders' debate with 8 people. But that ignores the fact that Scandinavian political culture is very different to our own. The skewed nature of First Past the Post means a very arbitrary line has to been drawn somewhere.

For example, much has been made of the numbers of MPs as an entitlement to take part. There are currently 12 parties in the Commons, which would stretch even a Nordic TV format. Using number of MPs as a criterion, after the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems, surely next dibs goes to the DUP's Peter Robinson. Who is First Minister of Northern Ireland and not an MP at all. I don't know how many people UK wide would actually want to see a debate with Robinson.

The Greens have been making the point that current national polling entitles them to a place in the debates. But what should that polling figure concretely be? And if / as / when the Greens drop below 4 or 3 or 2 % for a month or two would Natalie Bennett be out on her ear again?

There's all sorts of criteria you could use, like the SNP's membership figures. Or online presence, which would put me up against Cameron and Farage before Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood for example, despite their MPs.

What's clear is that leaders have been trying to draw the arbitrary line to their advantage. Following 2010's debates it's easy to see why, the debate gave the LibDems a significant boost. Which is the central problem. LibDem activists have confided to me that people were surprised in 2010 when they couldn't vote for Clegg as they didn't live in Sheffield Hallam. The Leaders' Debates further flatten the complexity of British democracy, and just adding a couple more people won't change that.

We are not electing a president in 2015. We are having 650 local elections. These local contests should be the focus. We should be trying to reinvigorate democracy from the grass roots up. We should be holding each candidate to account.

Much was made by DCMS and OFCOM about the awarding of local TV broadcasting licenses. It should be part of their remit to actively promote and show local debates. Where there aren't these stations, local authorities, charities and groups like Unlock Democracy should work to host local debates online. Much money is spent on generic 'go out and vote' campaigns which have done little to stem the tide of falling turnout. From the Scottish referendum we know it is having something to vote for that motivates people, not the abstract idea of democracy. Let's show the real choices that voters will have in 2015, not just more remote political grandstanding.